I’m tired of the universe conspiring against me. I don’t mean the “you’re born so you can learn a few things, grow old and die” bit: that whole plan doesn’t bother me. I get it. In theory. Theory and reality are two different things, as you know. Probably, the minute I find out I’m dying, I’ll exclaim, “WHAT?”
But that’s not the conspiracy I’m tired of. I’m tired of EVERYTHING HAPPENING AT ONCE!
Sorry to yell like that. I’m back under control now.
Let me explain. I’m rambling along the unremarkable road of my retirement, doing a little of this, a little of that. I’ve knocked the weather-beaten boards of my days into a serviceable routine: writing in the morning, house and yard afternoon, coffee dates, gym three times a week. But after four years, I’m just a trifle restless. Not to mention, running low on the funds needed to gambol about the world.
So in May, a former colleague asks if I’d like to teach one class in the fall. One class! A teacher’s dream, the dream all those teacher movies pretend is reality: one class. Twenty-five or thirty kids instead of 170. I peer down the unremarkable road of my retirement, where August lies in distant, empty haze. Nothing. It’s like the surface of the moon down there. I sign up.
An infectious disease doctor explained this to me once. Nasty germs sneak into your body all kinds of ways—impossible to stop them—and head straight for whatever part of you is compromised. “Ah-ha!” says one virus to another, “check it out, the lungs are weak, dude. Let’s crash there and start a cozy colony of bronchitis.”
Activity is like that too. You take a barren landscape section of your life and drop a modest activity into it, like, say, teaching one class. Just a pebble in the pond. You do it on tiptoe, don’t tell anyone, keep your head down.
The universe’s activity monster, which had been sound asleep, raises its slimy reptilian head. August? Starting a class? All right, then, let’s host an all-day seminar at the house the week before, have a reunion reading of Denver Crossroads poets the night after meeting all twenty-seven parents of your new students, throw in a dental emergency which takes three appointments to fix, have an essay on deadline for publication come back with 42 proposed edits and a note asking, “can you have this Tuesday?” (Here’s another problem with the internet: editors can send work Sunday afternoon and want it back Tuesday.)
But we’re not done: develop a leak in the basement, find a plumber, spend a lot of money, get appointed to a neighborhood committee and sign a contract to translate a 300-page book, all in August, right as I start teaching.
The translation job should be good news and it is. Since retirement I’ve been working at becoming a translator. But this translation job begins—of course—the last week of August. Oh, and when does my one sweet class end? December 19. The translation job is due December 5.
Maybe instead of the biological infection theory, it’s some insidious law of physics. Activity attracts more activity, commitments made in an empty field find other commitments snagging their legs like burrs, hovering overhead like stage parents, jumping up and down like four-year-olds, crying, “Me too! Me too!”
With no effort on my part, I go from not-enough to too-much, zero to eighty in thirty seconds, mixing metaphors like crazy. When I wasn’t so busy, I ignored dust bunnies and weeding for weeks without it bothering me a bit. Now I desperately want to attack those tasks this minute, the way I am only desperate to do things when I can’t do them. How could I? I need to knock out four pages of translation and plan tomorrow’s class.
This always happens to me. I know, because I’ve looked at years of old journals—remind me to burn those things—I used to write in daily. It’s there in black and white: everything happens at once.